Jewish Heritage Europe

Heritage & Heritage Sites

Only a very few physical traces of Jewish heritage are known to exist in Albania, the most important dating from ancient times.

ELBASAN

This city in central Albania has a section known as the Jewish Quarter (Samer)

SARANDA (Anchiasmon; Onchesmos)

At this city on the Adriatic coast, opposite the Greek island of Corfu, the remains of a synagogue dating from 3rd or 4th century (and enlarged in the 5th or 6th century) were excavated in 2003-2004. Albanian archaeologists apparently first discovered remains in the 1980s; the ban on religion by the then Communist regime prevented them from further exploring what was already thought to be a religious site. The subject matter of the exceptional mosaics found at the site suggested a Jewish past, leading to a joint project between archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology in Tirana and the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology in Jerusalem.

According to archaeologists Gideon Foerster and Ehud Netzer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, “five stages were identified in the history of the site. In the two early stages fine mosaic pavements (2nd to 4th century), probably part of a private home, preceded the later synagogue and church. In the third stage several rooms were added, the largest of these containing a mosaic pavement representing in its centre a menorah flanked by a shofar (ram’s horn) and an etrog (citron), all symbols associated with Jewish festivals. Mosaic pavements also decorated the other rooms. A large basilical hall added in the last two stages of the history of the site (5th to 6th century) represents the heyday of the Jewish community of Anchiasmon (Onchesmos), the ancient name of Saranda.”

The structure measures 20 by 24 metres and was probably last used in the 6th century as a church, as evidenced by two dedicatory inscriptions in the mosaic pavement. A visitor to Saranda wrote in 2011 that the synagogue “can be seen from the modern street as a large hole filled with stumps of walls, columns, and young palm trees.”

On a related note, a gravestone dating from 521 from the Jewish cemetery in Venosa, Italy bears the name of Augusta, daughter of Yishai, head of the Jewish community of Anchiasmon.  This bears witness to the strong ties between the Greek and Albanian coastal settlements and southern Italy, even in antiquity.

See http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/10/041020094144.htm

VLORA (Vlor, Vloré, Valona. Hebrew: Avilona)

There are conflicting reports that a disused synagogue may remain in this city on the Adriatic coast north of Saranda.

Travel article by Esther Hecht, 2012, on Jewish (& non-Jewish) Albania in Hadassah Magazine

The Tourist’s Dilemma

A 2011 article in Jewish Ideas Daily by Alex Joffe centered on the ancient Saranda synagogue and Jewish heritage tourism